SchNEWS Of The World


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The Gothenburg One

At the EU Summit at Gothenburg 14-16 June 2001, Paul Robinson was pulled from the crowd, beaten, arrested, charged and sentenced to one year for 'violent riot'. He tells his story.

Part of me still smiles at the absurdity of it all - the moments of pure comedy, the initial rage and anger replaced, quite naturally, with exasperation and a grim determination; the other political prisoners and the fearless good will and grace with which we took to our task, sharing, along with phone cards and manic riot memories, an unspoken, instinctive solidarity and fierce loyalty; the quiet friendships and inspired letters (the way the word still managed to get through); the bad English lessons given almost daily across the dinner table along with arguments over the political nature of sci-fi(!), tales of revolutionary activity, football teams supported and universal contempt for all that the Swedish state could throw at us... for a time it was some other kind of existence, dull and distracted, strange and unremarkable, but for all the distance and isolation and time lost, the eight months spent in a foreign prison fills me, even now, with nothing more than an overwhelming sense of the absurd.

For those who went to Gothenburg for the EU demonstrations in the summer of 2001, and watched with horror and disbelief as riot police shot indiscriminately into the crowd almost killing 3 people, it was the starting point of something that would lead, almost inevitably, to the transparent state brutality at Genoa. But for me, around 10.20pm on the evening of Friday June 15th, it was the beginning of a very different journey.

The morning of the 15th was one of the of the most incredible scenes I've ever witnessed - the streets of Gothenburg erupting in spontaneous anger and outrage, activists from all over Europe united in defiance, inspired and unapologetic, attacking wholeheartedly and with absolute joy the might and amoury of the Swedish state. It was a truly magnificent. Later that evening, when it kicked off again, defending ourselves once more against constant police charges the outcome turned out to be very, very different. In a lull in the confrontation I was grabbed by four riot police, dragged behind police lines and beaten with such force that I had to be prescribed painkillers by the prison doctor for two months after. Having been arrested, thrown in a cell and charged with 'violent riot' I spent the next month in solitary confinement up until my first trial. I saw or spoke to no other person (apart! from my solicitor and the British Consul - who turned out to be best friends with the chief of police!), spent 24 hours locked in my cell, was escorted to and from the toilets/showers, and offered nothing in the way of explanation or information. It was going to be a long, slow summer.

Both my trials turned out to be mundane in their predictability and outcome. One riot cop accused me of being a terrorist (this was on Sept 12th - the day after the twin towers attack!), and later freely admitted to shooting at people as they ran away because he 'feared for his safety'. A prosecutor demanded I should be convicted anyway simply because of the clothes I was wearing! Due to the nature of political show trials the verdict was never really in doubt, what surprised everyone, including the prison staff, was the severity of the sentence.

When I was finally released out of solitary and the restrictions lifted the mail started flooding in. Letters from all manner of people, from all over of the world. Almost on a daily basis guards would come in with a huge bundle of letters and parcels and incredulous looks on their faces 'who the fuck are you, why are all these people writing to you'. One even asked how famous I was back in the UK. The level of solidarity and support, which to be honest even amazed me, was completely lost on them. All restrictions lifted meant I could eat meals and socialise with the other prisoners. Right from the start me and the other three politicals convicted of rioting ("the stone-throwers") formed ourselves into a solid little group. Jesse the autonomist from Berlin - thoughtful, sincere, devouring political ideas with an almost obsessive intensity. The two of us would spend Sunday afternoons in each other's cells discussing tactics, theory, history, he arrived in Gothenburg replete with full body armour that would shame the most well-equipped police force. The evidence against me barely covered two pages; the evidence against Jesse amounted to a small volume.

Sebastian, a nineteen year old from southern Germany, was one of the unfortunate ones who got shot. TV cameras showed him struggling into court on crutches, barely able to walk because of his injuries, next day he was bouncing around the exercise yard like a two-year-old. And Gigi, a middle-aged Italian socialist living in Norway. Out of all of us Gigi was the one who genuinely shouldn't have been there. A small, slight, mild-mannered, incredibly quiet man with various physical ailments, it served absolutely no purpose for him to be imprisoned except to allow the Swedish state to show the rest of Europe how successfully it was dealing with these 'violent thugs'. His detention would remain, through our time together, a source of unspoken resentment we all felt. We secured our own table at mealtimes (our own miniature EU of dodgy radicals) and at one point I became the elder statesman of the remand centre finding myself in the dubious position of being the longest serving remand prisoner ever. This afforded me no particular privileges other than polite nods and general all round acknowledgement and the oddity of hearing everyone saying 'cheers' and 'alright' to each other at mealtimes. Everybody spoke some degree of English and because remand prisoners were mostly foreign nationals it was the universal language most commonly adopted. Made my life a hell of a lot easier.

The remand centre was essentially the eighth floor of the police station (view from my cell window: giant Volvo factory) and like Gothenburg itself clean, modern and practical. The 'exercise yard' was an enclosed concrete cage on the roof so the only time I set foot on solid ground in the six months I was there was my two days in court. Life in prison is about two things: conformity and routine. It's designed not to disable the natural anger, instinct and imagination of those imprisoned, but simply dull them into indifference. Those who survive best in prison are those who can overcome their own boredom, become bigger than the futility that surrounds them. Day to day life, then, was not one of particular hardship or despair but of general tedium and frustration and finding ways to keep your mind alert and occupied, mentally fresh. I asked for books to be sent from the UK and the response was phenomenal! By the time I left for prison at Karlskoga I had accumulated over 93 books, plus pamphlets and journals, pissing off the person who had to count every personal item prisoners had. They'd never seen anything like it, I had more books than the prison library, most were given to the Solidarity Group in Gothenburg who were not only unconditional in their support but were also wonderful, generous people as well. And if books (and tapes) were a godsend then letters were pure emotional sunlight, an absolute necessity. They acted as a barrier, a source of comfort and sense of pride. It's difficult to describe or explain or convey just how much they meant but every single person who wrote to me while I was inside will forever occupy a tiny part of my soul. As Carole Maso would say, the dark was not so dark.

By the time I got to Karlskoga, a tiny, quiet prison stuck in the middle of the Swedish countryside to serve the last two months of my sentence, I was a fully accepted member of the criminal fraternity. Prisoners there knew exactly who I was and what I was in for. I was afforded a great deal of respect, which took a while to get used to. The armed robbers and gang members were genuinely impressed with my stone throwing abilities and general lack of fear in the face of oncoming riot police. But despite the greater freedom and distractions, it just wasn't the same anymore - I was now just killing time, counting down the days and keeping myself to myself. The other stone-throwers had been moved to other prisons and somehow the fire and focus had shifted from retaining your sense of self to thoughts of home and the London I'd left behind.

As an experience, yes it was unique and no it's not one I'd like to go through again, liberty is not to be taken so lightly or traded so easily. Here is what I am: working class, a revolutionary, anarchist, troublemaker, ex-criminal - all of which I treasure with equal warmth and determination, all of which cannot be taken from me.

Of the 53 arrested, some 40 received sentences on the charge of 'violent riot'. While Paul served eight months and is now out, others - including others mentioned in this article - got longer sentences and are still inside in Sweden. To offer support to these prisoners contact: Gothenburg Solidaritygroup GBG, c/o Syndikalistiskt Forum, Box 7267, 402 35 Gothenburg, Sweden.

To follow the progress of the Gothenburg arrestees after the summit see 'Inside SchNEWS' - backpage on issues 318, 322, 326, 329, 334, 347.